Therapist

Recreation activities for mental health

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Play is a powerful thing. For people dealing with a physical, emotional, or mental health issue, therapy in the form of recreation can be especially powerful.

Recreational therapy can help rebuild skills, improve mood, boost quality of life, and strengthen social connections. These are just some of the benefits of targeted recreational therapy on your health and well-being.

This article will take a closer look at what recreational therapy is, how it can be especially beneficial, and the steps you can take to find the right therapist.

What is recreational therapy?

Recreational therapy uses leisure activities to help people with specific health conditions improve their skills, abilities, overall health, and emotional well-being.

Recreational therapists work with you and your healthcare team to set health goals and develop a plan to meet your needs. The plan is based on your own interests and the resources available in your community.

Recreational therapy can take place in a variety of settings, including:

  • hospitals
  • schools
  • inpatient and outpatient mental health facilities and programs
  • skilled nursing facilities
  • assisted living facilities
  • sports programs
  • substance use programs
  • correctional facilities
  • community centers

Your therapist will typically try to match your activities to your interests. Some of the activities that may be part of a recreational therapy program include:

  • art
  • music
  • sports games
  • video games
  • board games
  • animal interactions
  • dance and movement
  • gardening
  • storytelling
  • creative writing
  • drama
  • cooking classes
  • community and cultural outings

What types of conditions are well suited to recreational therapy?

Recreational therapy benefits people of all ages. It’s often used to help people who are:

  • recovering from a stroke
  • rehabilitating from an injury, illness, or surgery
  • working to improve motor skills
  • learning to carry out the activities of daily living independently
  • being treated for cancer
  • experiencing anxiety or worry in a hospital setting
  • feeling isolated or depressed
  • developing the ability to express their thoughts and emotions
  • recovering from a substance use disorder

How can recreational therapy benefit your health?

Recreational therapy has wide-ranging positive impacts on your physical and mental health. This is especially the case when the therapy is designed around your individual interests and needs.

Let’s dive into some of the science-backed benefits of these therapies.

Improves symptoms of depression

Many therapeutic recreation programs get people up and moving and stimulating their minds with engaging, creative tasks.

Research from 2018 shows that recreational therapy involving physical activity may decrease symptoms of depression.

Music therapy, art therapy, drama, and dance also all have positive effects on depression symptoms. Researchers believe the improvement may be linked to endorphins. These feel-good chemicals are released in your brain during physical movement, when you express yourself creatively, and during social interactions.

Increases self-esteem

Research shows that recreational therapy may help improve a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem.

In one small 2018 study, for example, therapists interviewed older adults in a long-term care facility, asking them to select leisure activities based on their interests.

After a structured program where the adults engaged in their chosen activities every week and did simple upper body exercises, they reported improved self-esteem compared with how they felt before starting the therapy program.

Study participants who hadn’t been offered the option of customized activities didn’t experience the same boost to their self-esteem.

Strengthens social connections

Illness, injury, and disability can limit your ability to interact with people. Recreational therapy provides opportunities to engage with other people in positive ways, which can counteract feelings of isolation.

In one 2011 study, people with early dementia described feeling uplifted and accepted after participating in a recreational therapy program together.

Stronger social bonds like these are associated with better health outcomes across the board.

Improves functional independence after an injury

In many cases, a serious injury can affect your ability to do routine tasks. Taking care of your home, exercising, playing with your children or grandchildren — these activities may be difficult or impossible after an injury.

Recreational therapy can make a difference in the level of functional independence after a serious injury.

In one 2012 study, for example, researchers found that people who engaged in greater amounts of therapeutic recreation after a spinal cord injury recovered functional independence at a slightly higher rate than those who didn’t have the same therapy.

Recreational therapy for people with injuries is also associated with more social activity, greater involvement with sports or aquatic activities, and fewer pressure ulcers.

Increases strength and physical fitness

Recreational therapy often includes exercise, games, dance, yoga, tai chi, and other kinds of movement. A 2014 study found that this kind of recreational movement may help improve your balance, physical strength, and flexibility.

In a 2020 study, 33 preschool children with autism spectrum disorder participated in an 8-week therapeutic program that focused on basketball. At the end of the program, the students had improved speed, agility, and muscle strength, and showed improvements in their social communication skills.

There’s also some evidence that exercise therapy may be a helpful tool in substance use programs.

Boosts cognitive abilities

Research from 2011 shows that physical exercise, social engagement, and games that stimulate your brain (such as bridge, chess, and memory challenges) all improve the healthy functioning of your mind.

It’s important to bear in mind that recreational therapy can’t fully restore areas of the brain that have been permanently damaged. But research from 2017 suggests that physical activity, social relationships, and activities that challenge your thinking may all help maintain the healthy functioning of your brain.

Relieves anxiety for children who are hospitalized

Being treated in a hospital is a stressful, fearful experience for a child. According to a 2013 study, recreational therapy in a pediatric hospital may help reduce those negative feelings. This can be particularly important if a child visits hospitals repeatedly due to a chronic condition.

Therapeutic play gives children opportunities to build positive relationships with hospital staff, to talk about their feelings, and to develop a sense of control and confidence at a time when they may be feeling vulnerable.

How does it differ from occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy and recreational therapy are two professions in the allied health field. Depending on your condition, you may work with both therapists.

Occupational therapists focus on the physical and cognitive skills you need to function in your daily life. This can include skills such as:

  • bathing
  • dressing
  • making meals
  • moving around your home

While recreational therapy may also help you with these skills, the focus of the therapy is on leisure activities.

Education and training requirements

Recreational therapists typically have a bachelor’s degree in the field. Many states and healthcare organizations also require certification as a therapeutic recreation specialist.

To become certified, the therapist must have a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, a related field, or have worked for 5 or more years in therapeutic recreation services. They also need to complete a 560-hour supervised internship and pass a rigorous exam by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification.

Five states (New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah) also require recreation therapists to be licensed.

How to find the right therapist 

If you’re receiving therapeutic recreational therapy in a hospital, skilled nursing facility, or rehabilitation clinic, you may not need to choose a therapist, as they’re likely to be part of your treatment team.

If you want to find an independent recreation therapist for yourself, an older loved one, or a child in your care, you may want to ask these questions as you consider the possibilities:

  • Does my insurance plan cover recreational therapy services?
  • Should I choose a therapist from my provider network?
  • Is this therapist certified or licensed?
  • Does this therapist consider my interests and abilities when creating my plan?
  • What do I want to accomplish with recreational therapy?
  • Does this therapist listen to my ideas and concerns?
  • Do I feel respected when I work with this therapist?
  • Does my child or my parent express any discomfort or concerns about working with this therapist?
  • Does this therapist seem to be aware of and responsive to my culture?

Depending on your health goals, you may be interacting with your therapist for a period of weeks or months, so it’s important to consider your own needs and feelings as you make your choice.

Know that it’s always OK to change therapists or stop working with a therapist if you need to do so. You don’t need a reason.

Is recreational therapy covered by insurance?

The benefits offered by private insurance companies vary from provider to provider, so you’ll need to check with your plan administrator to find out which therapeutic services are covered by your plan. To avoid higher costs, you may have to find a therapist or facility in your provider network.

Medicare Part B pays for outpatient activity therapies when they’re part of your rehabilitation plan or mental healthcare plan, so long as they’re provided by Medicare-approved healthcare professionals.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have approved recreational therapists as members of the treatment and rehabilitation teams in skilled nursing facilities and other inpatient healthcare facilities.

However, Medicare typically only pays for services that are medically necessary. Medicare may not pay for every service your healthcare team recommends.

The bottom line

Recreational therapy uses leisure activities to promote recovery from illness, injury, or disability. Activities might include art, dance, music, exercise, creative writing, and games of all types.

Working with a trained recreational therapist can improve your mood, reasoning abilities, memory, physical fitness, and self-confidence. Researchers believe the combination of physical movement, creativity, social interaction, and mental engagement helps to deliver this wide range of health benefits.

If you think recreational therapy could benefit you or someone in your care, talk with your healthcare provider about the possibility of harnessing the power of play to achieve your health goals.

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